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How the Arab Spring Changed the Arab Screen and Why You Need to Start Paying Attention

By Ronan Doyle | Indiewire November 5, 2013 at 9:00AM

"I took this video so that people know what really happened," whispers the protagonist of Rags and Tatters, Ahmad Abdallah's urgent yet understated Egyptian drama set amidst—but apart from—the 2011 revolution. That's a sentiment that's pervaded the new Arab cinema showcased at this year's Abu Dhabi Film Festival: the need, above all, to document the seismic changes underway within the "Greater Middle East", as George W. Bush's administration once termed it.
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"Bastardo"
"Bastardo"

But far from being a jubilant celebration of liberation, the new Arab films to be found through ADFF's various slates comprise a view that's sceptical and cynical above all. Like Allouache and Rasheed and others before them, these young filmmakers are exposing the on-the-ground reality of their respective situations. In fact "Rags and Tatters"—a mostly silent drama that finds ironic juxtaposition between the celebratory radio and television news reports that fill the film's soundscape and the more grounded, even grim reality its characters actually encounter—maintains a sombre sense of uncertainty about the shift it chronicles. Given that Abdallah's last film, an exploration of the anger and frustrations inherent in the country's youth, opened the same day the Tahrir Square demonstrations broke out, his similar prescience here having since been proven justified should come as no surprise.

That Tunisian director Néjib Belkadhi, in introducing his "Bastardo," used ironic air quotes when mentioning the "Arab Spring" is telling: these filmmakers, like their forebears, have made it their business to interrogate the changes around them. His movie, a magic realist masterpiece that plays like a macabre modern retelling of "Miracle in Milan," sees the despicable leader of an obviously allegorical settlement displaced, only for the genial new head installed in his place to turn things even more totalitarian. Even "Cairo Drive," a film that fails to fully exploit the extraordinary opportunity of its Sacro GRA-esque life-via-lanes documentary getting caught up, mid-production, in the Egyptian uprising, has its piece to say, exposing—by way of its interviewees—the lingering issues left unaddressed by the new regime.

If the parallels of ADFF's Arab films of the past and present have reminded us that history delights in repeating itself, these new directors are showing themselves to have learned from that. But it isn't so much their sceptical takes that stand out as the fact they've been allowed to express them. With the hand-in-hand democratisation of the media and the political system, these filmmakers find themselves with both the fuel and the freedom to examine unrestrained the issues most pressing to them and their audience.

And that audience is only going to grow with time. Physically and politically restricted in the past, Arab cinema now finds itself at a point of possibility that's broadened almost beyond comprehension. With institutions like ADFF's own Sanad Fund adding financial opportunities and the now-removed regimes allowing for exploration of issues long censored—as with In the Sands of Babylon's investigation of Iraqi genocide—the kind of great movies that formerly emerged almost accidentally are becoming all the more common, and all the more difficult to ignore. 

The powerful central image of Vachan Sharma's "My Pink Room," one of the standouts of the Emirates Film Competition for filmmakers in the Gulf Cooperation Council member states, is a white flag freely flowing in the wind obscured behind a haze of barbed wire. The Kuwaiti-produced, Syrian-set short is as much a testament to the spirit of shared experience that's defining this new Arab cinema as to the issues it addresses. The ultimate fallout of the Arab Spring remains to be resolved. What's clear, at least, is that the Arab screen's role will be essential.

This article is related to: Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Features, Filmmaker Toolkit Festival Strategy, Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals, Arabic, United Arab Emirates





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